One Nation Under Drones

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Imagine: you’re on an uneventful final descent into your local metropolitan airport when suddenly the pilot makes a violent lurch to the left. The captain’s voice comes over the loudspeaker with an apology for the turbulence. “Sorry folks,” she says, “all OK up here, but we had to swerve to avoid an 'agricultural drone' that drifted off course from its assigned soy bean fields. We should be clear from here on out.”

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. On March 4, 2013, as an Alitalia pilot brought his plane into its final descent at New York’s busy John F. Kennedy Airport, a three-foot-long unmanned vehicle flew within two hundred feet of his Boeing 777. The small black drone appeared to be what the industry calls a quadcopter, a widely available remote controlled aircraft popular among hobbyists and law enforcement with the range of a conventional model aircraft on steroids and the capability to fly into a passenger jet's flight-path. The incident ended without much fanfare, but it was a hint of some of the nightmare scenarios that led Congress in 2012 to instruct the Federal Aviation Agency devise a plan to integrate commercial and governmental drones into US civilian airspace by 2015.

For the FAA, it is a very unenviable task. Deep-pocketed lobbyists for motion pictures, energy, and industrial agriculture want commercial drones legalized for their clients. Aerospace manufacturers and giant military-industrial complex companies like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman see civilian drones as a potential moneymaker. Their desires stand in contrast to the public, which is generally ambivalent about the idea of unmanned, camera-equipped aircraft flying above them—and to legislators, who see civilian drones as a hot-button election issue.

It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been fast. But there is no more time to wait. The technology behind unmanned drones has migrated from foreign battle zones to the shores of the United States, and is being adapted to civilian and domestic law enforcement uses. Whether they are called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or unmanned aerial systems (UASes), camera-equipped unmanned aircraft are here to stay.